Mother’s Day was first observed in 1908 with a small church service in West Virginia, USA, organised by a woman named Anna Marie Jarvis in commemoration of her mother, who before her death three years prior, had often expressed a desire for a date commemorating the love and sacrifice of mothers. Each person in the service wore a white carnation to symbolise “the truth, purity and broad-charity of a mother’s love”. Six years of extensive campaigning later, the US Congress officially designated the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.
But Jarvis’ success was short-lived. By the 1920s, Jarvis saw the sincere and heartfelt sentimentality of the holiday she had envisioned morph into a date where the floral and greeting card industries jacked up prices and heavily commodified the date, encouraging people to make other purchases like candy, flowers and prepared greeting cards. Jarvis even petitioned to rescind the date in the 1940s, feeling that original meaning of the date had been lost.
Fast forward to 21st century, and you’ll see that not much has changed. With the Chinese New Year and Valentine’s day season recently passed, we’ve just gone past two of the many holidays celebrated throughout the year that appear to be more of shopping seasons rather than commemorative dates. Easter and Mother’s Day are next in line, and come these dates, it’ll be hard to ignore the piles of chocolate and greeting cards displayed around shopping malls everywhere.
While most people make use of these important dates throughout the year to do something special for their families and loved ones, it sometimes seems like the overwhelming sales, decorations and social media advertisements have transformed these traditionally festive holidays into mechanical, over-marketed business opportunities for retailers.
The Epidemic of Commercialisation
Just Google “commercialisation of holidays” and you’ll see innumerable think-pieces lamenting how it has undermined the original message of the holiday and is really, really bad for society’s morals.
It’s become very easy for businesses to make use of these holidays to sell products like expensive bouquets on Valentine’s Day or elaborate Christmas ornaments. Often, people criticise this commercialisation, highlighting the vicious cycle of business attracting people through sales, discounts, and flamboyant piles of goodies on these occasions, perpetuating the culture of us buying and expecting pricey gifts. Others criticise business that exploit the inelastic demand for such items, like expensive mooncakes or bak kwa.
But perhaps another reason why these heavily commercialised holidays have become a norm is that modern society has embraced its culture just as easily as it is offered. We’re easily attracted to things we don’t need just because we’ve become so used to giving, receiving, eating, or seeing them when specific times of the year roll up. In Japan and South Korea, White Day – held a month after Valentine’s Day – was literally created from nothing by Japanese confectioneries in 1978, and now men around the region buy their lovers white chocolates and candy year after year.
Are these Holidays Worth Celebrating?
However, perhaps there still remains some value in these seemingly “artificial” holidays. For many working adults, time is not a resource readily available to everyone. Rather than let a meaningful holiday gradually fade out of existence, perhaps it is better that we substitute traditional practices for more commercially available ones in a world which isn’t as carefree as the past.
For instance, the Mid-Autumn festival has traditionally observed families making and sharing mooncakes as a celebration of familial unity, but now few families in Singapore put aside time to eat mooncakes together, much less make them. The practice has now evolved into family members giving each other expensive mooncakes, which are readily available at many bakeries. Some companies are now selling fancier versions of traditional mooncakes, including durian-flavoured or sugar-free versions to promote the practice.
While its commercial aspect cannot be denied, it is perhaps far more beneficial to the festival’s spirit of gathering that its traditional practices are given a modern shot in the arm rather than letting it die out completely.
Also, as busy shopping districts and departmental stores are lined with lights and glitter on Christmas, and Chinatown’s streets are strung with bright red ornaments during Chinese New Year, perhaps we should consider that the commercial aspect of many holidays plays a big part in setting the mood of the date and reminding the forgetful ones among us that Father’s Day is approaching. Not everyone bothers to put up decorations for the holidays, but shopping malls and street vendors never fail to adorn their surroundings with flashy, enticing decorations that draw customers in and foster the festive spirit.
Furthermore, from a practical standpoint, holiday seasons in fact are very important to the economies of many countries including Singapore. The Christmas shopping season typically starts on the day following Thanksgiving, also known as Black Friday which is a particularly important season for retailers in the United States and several other countries that celebrate Christmas.
In Singapore, this shopping season is extended even further with Chinese New Year, which then cascades into Valentine’s Day, with retailers enjoying an 8.6% boost in sales in February 2018 as compared to the previous year. Based on the principle that one man’s expenditure is another man’s income, the increased spending during this extended holiday season can be particularly vital to businesses that thrive on such occasions including florists, jewellers, bakeries and gift shops.
So maybe it’s not such a bad thing that these holidays are defined largely by commercialisation. But even if you can’t afford a fancy bouquet for your mother come Mother’s Day, do remember that the spirit of the holiday isn’t defined by what you buy – that’s merely an opportunity the retailers have given you to celebrate the true spirit of the occasion. Spending time with her or making her breakfast in bed will undoubtedly be way more meaningful than anything you can get in a gift shop.